Categories History

Women Who Broke Barriers In The Automotive Industry

The automotive industry is not just for men, and these ladies prove it. Although, less talked about than their male counterparts, these women were trailblazers. From Kevlar fibers to race car drivers there is no shortage of women breaking barriers in the car world.

Our hope is that sharing the stories of these women will help inspire the next generation to follow their dreams – no matter the industry.

Bertha Benz

bertha benz portrait

Everyone needs a wife like Bertha. In 1886, Karl Benz filed a patent for his three-wheeled vehicle powered by a gas engine, which is considered the birth certificate of the modern automobile. However, the new technology faced significant public skepticism.

Recognizing this, Bertha took matters into her own hands in 1888 by embarking on the first long-distance automobile journey, driving the Motorwagen from Mannheim to Pforzheim without her husband’s knowledge.

This daring 66-mile trip not only demonstrated the practicality and reliability of the automobile, but also led to important innovations. Along the way, Bertha’s resourcefulness and mechanical skills were on full display as she addressed various technical issues, including designing the world’s first brake pads. Bertha’s pioneering journey garnered significant media attention, helping to boost sales and marketing efforts for the Motorwagen. Her contributions were further recognized in 2011 when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Carl Benz’s automotive patent as a major contributor to the world’s cultural heritage.

Wilma Russey

wilma russey driving a taxi
Transportation History

Even today we do not see as many women driving taxis as we do men. Back in 1915 women driving taxes was pretty much non-existent, until Wilma Russey came along. She has the unique distinction of being the first female taxi driver in New York

Russey was also an accomplished auto mechanic. Before starting as a tax driver she spent her days working as a mechanic for a local garage. This would be a huge benefit when that taxi broke down. 

Wilhelmine Erhardt

wilhelmine erhardt in  a car
Arte/AWE Stiftung Eisenach

Wilhelmine Erhardt was a pioneering female driver in the early 20th century automotive industry. As the wife of a factory manager in Germany, Erhardt was an enthusiastic motorist and drove one of the four Wartburg cars, which were among the most popular female cars at the time.

In 1901, Erhardt made automotive history when she participated in the Eisenach long-distance driving event through the German Hainich mountains. Though she faced many challenges on the mountainous route, Erhardt’s participation was a significant milestone, as it helped to challenge the outdated notion that motor vehicles were solely for men. Erhardt’s trailblazing efforts paved the way for greater female participation in the automotive industry. 

Stephanie Kwolek

stephanie kwolek kevalr creator
Chemical Heritage Foundation, Michael Branscom

Stephanie Kwolek was an American chemist who invented the synthetic fiber Kevlar in 1965 while working for DuPont. Kevlar is known for its high strength and heat resistance, making it widely used in various industries, including the automotive industry.

In the automotive industry, Kevlar is commonly used in tires, belts, hoses, and other components to improve durability and safety. Its high strength-to-weight ratio and resistance to abrasion and heat make it an ideal material for enhancing the performance and safety of vehicles.

Clärenore Stinnes

Clarenore Stinnes with her dogs
Muelheim an der Ruhr

In 1927, at the age of 26, Stinnes became the first European woman to circumnavigate the globe by automobile. Stinnes’ 29,000 mile journey, which she undertook with Swedish cinematographer Carl-Axel Söderström, was sponsored by major German automotive companies like Adler, Bosch, and Aral.

Prior to her world tour, Stinnes had already established herself as a successful racing driver, winning 17 races against male competitors by 1927. Her participation and success in motorsports helped to challenge gender barriers and pave the way for greater female involvement in the automotive industry.

Mary Anderson

mary anderson headshot

Mary Anderson was the inventor of the windshield wiper. In 1903, while traveling by trolley in New York City during a snowstorm, Anderson noticed that the driver had to open the window to see clearly, sometimes even stopping the trolley to clear the snow. This inspired her to invent a device with a spring-loaded arm and rubber blade that could be operated from inside the vehicle to clear the windshield.

Anderson’s invention was the first effective windshield-clearing device, and it eventually became standard equipment on automobiles, with Cadillac installing it in 1922. Though initially met with skepticism, Anderson’s pioneering work paved the way for the widespread adoption of windshield wipers, which are now an essential safety feature in modern vehicles.

Margaret Wilcox

margaret wilcox

Say a thank you to Margaret Wilcox, because she is the person who gave your car heaters. Wilcox recognized that the internal combustion engines in early automobiles generated a lot of heat, so she devised a system to channel that hot air into the vehicle’s cabin. In 1893 she would patent the first car heater.

Wilcox’s invention was particularly notable because at the time, it was still illegal for women to file patents in their own names in the United States. Despite this obstacle, Wilcox received full credit for her pioneering work, making her a trailblazer for women in the male-dominated automotive industry of the late 19th century. Wilcox’s car heater went on to become a standard feature in automobiles, with Ford incorporating her design into their vehicles starting in 1929. 

Danica Patrick

danica patrick

Danica Patrick was a trailblazer in the male-dominated world of auto racing. She became the first woman to win an IndyCar race with her victory at the 2008 Indy Japan 300. Patrick also made history as the first woman to win the pole position for the Daytona 500, showing that she had the speed and skill to hang with NASCAR’s elite.

Patrick’s impact on the sport is undeniable. She opened the door for more women to pursue their racing dreams and showed that a little “girl power” can go a long way, even in a world full of testosterone-fueled engines and oversized egos.

Suzanne Vanderbilt

suzanne vanderbilt behind wheel of car
Cranbrook Kitchen Sink

As one of the pioneering “Damsels of Design” at General Motors in the 1950s, she helped shatter the notion that car design was a boys-only club. Vanderbilt’s innovative ideas, like introducing retractable seatbelts and child-proof doors, went on to become standard features in vehicles. 

While her female colleagues often faced sexism and were relegated to working on interiors, Vanderbilt managed to carve out a 23-year career at GM, rising through the ranks and leaving an indelible mark. She proved that women could excel in traditionally male-dominated roles and that good design transcends gender.

Lella Lombardi

lella lombardi headshot
Nigel Snowden / The Klemantaski Collection

Lella Lombardi was a trailblazing Italian racing driver who made history in Formula 1. In 1975, she became the only woman to score points in a Formula 1 race, finishing 6th at the Spanish Grand Prix and earning half a championship point. Lombardi also enjoyed success in other racing series, winning the Italian Formula 850 championship in 1970 and the Formula Ford Mexico title in 1971.

She was the first woman to race at the prestigious Race of Champions event at Brands Hatch in 1974. After her F1 career, Lombardi found success in sports car racing, winning the 6 Hours of Pergusa and 6 Hours of Vallelunga in 1979. Tragically, Lombardi passed away from breast cancer in 1992 at the age of 50, but her legacy as a pioneering female racing driver remains an inspiration.

Jutta Kleinschmidt

jutta kleinschmidt in a racecar
Jutta Kleinschmidt

Jutta Kleinschmidt is a highly accomplished German off-road automotive racer. She is the first and only woman to date to have won the Dakar Rally, the world’s toughest and longest rally raid event, in 2001. Kleinschmidt started competing in the Dakar Rally on motorcycles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before switching to cars in 1995.

She became the first woman to win a stage of the Dakar Rally in 1997. In addition to her Dakar Rally victory, Kleinschmidt has achieved numerous other podium finishes in the event, with a total of 6 top 5 finishes, 4 podiums, and 1 win over 17 participations. Kleinschmidt has been recognized for her achievements, being named an FIM Legend in 2013 for her motorcycling accomplishments, and receiving various other awards.

Alice Huyler Ramsey

alice huyler ramsey

It was June 1909 when Alice Huyler Ramsey started a journey like no other. As a 22-year old wife and mother, she set off on a cross-country trip that would take her from New York to California. The 3,800 mile journey would be in a four-cylinder, 30-horsepower Maxwell DA. Only 150 miles of all the roads traveled were paved, making it quite challenging.

She enjoyed the company of three other people, but since none of them could drive – it was all up to her. She would arrive in California on August of that same year. Ramsey would later form the Women’s Motoring Club and in 2000 became the first female inductee in the Automotive Hall of Fame.

The Volvo Concept Car That Was Made For Women – By Women

2004 volvo ycc

A car made just for women, by women? That is just what Volvo did with this 2004 YCC concept car. 

Learn more about this women focused car

Leave a Comment